Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, November 17, 2014

Spencer: Misapplication of Career Offender Guideline is not cognizable under 2255.

In Spencer v. U.S., No. 10-10686 (Nov. 14, 2014), the Court (en banc) (5-4) held that a defendant cannot attack a misapplication of the career offender Guideline in a collateral attack on his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The Court first noted that it had erroneously granted Spencer a certificate of appealability, because such a certificate may only issue if the applicant has made a “substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” Here, there was no underlying constitutional issue. Nevertheless, the Court declined to vacate the certificate “at this late hour,” because the matter had been litigated before a panel and was now before the en banc Court. The Court warned that it would not be so lenient in the future. Turning to the merits, the Court noted that under § 2255, a district court lacks the authority to correct a claimed sentencing error unless the claimed error constitutes a “fundamental defect” which inherently results in a “complete miscarriage of justice.” The Court held that the Guideline error Spencer alleged did not qualify as a complete miscarriage of justice. The Court pointed out that Spencer’s sentence was below the statutory maximum sentence for his offense. The sentence was therefore “lawful.” Because the Guidelines are advisory, the district court could reimpose the same sentence on remand, and the error therefore cannot be a complete miscarriage of justice. The Court noted that even if Spencer’s sentence on direct appeal would be viewed as “substantively unreasonable” – the incorrect application of the career offender Guideline nearly doubled his Guideline range, from a range of 70-87 months to a range of 151-180 months – this would not qualify as a “complete miscarriage of justice” because the sentence was still below the statutory maximum. The Court declined to equate “legal innocence” of a prior qualifying conviction under the career offender Guideline with “factual innocence,” because Spencer still committed a “serious” prior crime: felony child abuse (at the age of 18, Spencer had sex with a 14-year old). The sentencing judge could still consider the seriousness of this conviction at resentencing. The Court distinguished cases where a prior conviction had been vacated, finding that this vacatur constitutes a "new fact" with which the petitioner can challenge his sentence. Spencer merely presented an argument of "legal innocence." (Martin, J,, dissenting noted that the ruling will increase costs in the criminal justice system to the extent that the U.S. taxpayer will have to spend dozens of thousands of dollars incarcerating Spencer for time he should not be in prison). (Jordan, J., dissenting, argued that the mistaken career offender designation was a complete miscarriage of justice, noting that the 81-month increase in Spencer's sentence is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school).